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Aug 09 2005

“Christian” country?

When some people claim that the US is a “Christian” country, they may have a point. In the August 2005 issue of the invaluable Harper’s Magazine, Bill McKibben provides some statistics that indicate that the US is “among the most spiritually homogeneous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish.” McKibben also reports that 75 percent claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, but only 33 percent say that they go to church every week.

But the interesting point about McKibben’s article The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong is that what all these believers mean by being “Christian” may not bear much resemblance to what Jesus actually preached. In fact, what is conspicuous is the widespread ignorance about the religion and the leader they purport to follow.

For example, he points out that “[o]nly 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels” (my emphasis). And 12 percent believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! (I have long had the impression that there is no proposition, however idiotic, that you cannot find at least 10 percent, often 20 percent, to agree to on such nationwide surveys.)

What McKibben’s article asserts is what I have long suspected, that the “Christianity” that is genuflected to in the US bears only a slight resemblance to the message actually preached by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. As McKibben (a Sunday School teacher at his local church) points out, if one breaks down the essentials of Jesus’ teaching, it was very socially oriented, emphasizing the need for us to look out for each other. Jesus’ summary (Matthew 25: 32-46) of what distinguished a righteous person from the damned was whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and the prisoner. (The last requirement should be particularly easy to carry out since the US has six to seven times the number of prisoners of other rich nations.)

This social message has been replaced by a personal, individualistic, self-empowerment, ‘feel good’ one, that looks on personal wealth and well-being as signs of God’s favor. Consider Jesus’ advice (Matthew 19:16-24) to a rich man who had asked him what he should do to gain eternal life. He told him to sell everything he add and give it all to the poor, following that with this aside to his disciples: “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is not a message, one suspects, that is preached in the modern mega-churches which feature drive-through latte stands, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at services, and sermons on how to reach professional goals and invest your money.

Perhaps the most telling symptom of this deviation from the Gospel message is the fact that three out of four American “Christians” believe that the saying “God helps those who helps themselves” comes from the Bible. It was actually said by Benjamin Franklin and is directly opposite to the message of interdependency preached in the Gospels. But it fits in nicely with a political message that favors tax cuts for the rich, cutting welfare benefits for the poor, and reductions of foreign aid.

What we seem to have in the US (at least among the Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson crowd and their followers) is a religion that is based on the Bible except for the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. It seems to be something cobbled together from pieces of the old testament, some of Paul’s letters, and the book of Revelations. What should this hollowed out religion be called? I have so far put the name “Christian” in quotes since this commonly used label hardly seems appropriate for a belief structure that ignores the essentials of Christ’s teachings. It seems clear that “Christianity” doesn’t fit. What alternative name might be suitable? Any ideas?

POST SCRIPT

I have never understood why people buy bottled water if you don’t happen to live in a country where tap water is contaminated. As this article points out, in the US itself, where there is every indication that tap water is in fact better than bottled water, people spend vast amounts of money for what they could get free. The author says that bottled water has become seen as a lifestyle choice, rather than as something that is necessary, and he goes on:

Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.

I drink the bottled water that is now routinely provided at meetings. But I don’t spend my own money to buy it, except for the gallon or two I keep for emergencies.

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